Culture of New Zealand: A Dive into the Country's Rich Tradition

  • While most people believe that the culture of New Zealand is essentially homogeneous with other Anglican or Western European lifestyles and cultural practices, the culture of New Zealand is not exactly the same. New Zealand’s unique geographic isolation and situation has given rise to the country’s distinct blend of traditional Polynesian and Maori traditions and the influence of later European settlers.

  • The Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840, brought together the British Crown and its representatives and the various Maori tribes, and guaranteed freedom of opportunity for both sets of people.

  • This gave rise to today’s uniquely Kiwi or distinct culture of New Zealand that is influenced by the traditional Maori lifestyles of settler communities that can trace their lineage back to the early 13th century and by the European sensibilities of settler communities. 

1. Food 

  • Food in New Zealand is a huge part of the culture of New Zealand. It is a heady and delicious mixture of the Polynesian cooking techniques favoured for millennia by the Maori people and incorporates native cooking methods and is most famously represented by the Hangi.

  • The Hangi is cooked on special occasions and is made by cooking the food in earthen holes dug in the ground and letting the geothermal energy of the earth cook the food overnight. Maori cuisine also makes heavy use of sweet potato and traditional seafood and types of fish. 

  • Kiwi cuisine is also heavily influenced by Western European cooking techniques. The cream dessert, Pavlova, is a hugely popular New Zealand dish that was allegedly made to honour the arrival of the famous Russian ballerina in New Zealand.

  • The fusion of Maori and Western cooking techniques and ingredients have given rise to a uniquely and distinctively Kiwi cuisine and food culture that draws people from around the world.

  • More contemporarily, New Zealand has also been lauded the world over for its cutting-edge fusion cooking styles that marry the stunning raw ingredients that the country has become famous for, along with the beautiful wine and alcohol scene has seen New Zealand become a pioneer in the gastronomic world.

  • The booming cafe culture and the espresso-making scene that has become a feature of the Kiwi culinary world has also made New Zealand an exciting destination in terms of the cooking and beverage world.

2. Social Customs

  • The social custom of touching noses between two people, which may include touching foreheads together at the same time, is a very respectful manner of greeting according to the Maori people. This is a core aspect of the culture of New Zealand.

  • The custom is known as the Hongi, and is usually performed at ritual or traditional Maori welcoming ceremonies known as Powhiris.

  • The Hongi is used to show affection, respect, and is a show of welcoming the other person into the community and is a show of trust. The practice of the Hongi arose from the belief that the god Tane breathed life into a figure by touching noses.

  • This also serves to establish a connection between the visitors, known as manuhiri, and the people of the land, the tangata whenua. 

  • The Powhiri is known as a welcoming ceremony that serves to welcome visitors and newcomers to the country and allows them to be a part of the community. It can also be extended to include newcomers to a workplace, to a new neighbourhood and other examples as well.
  • The powhiri is generally conducted at the meeting grounds of the tribe, known as the marae, and this is where the ceremonial aspects of the process are carried out. The tangata whenua, or the hosts or members of the tribe, and welcome the manuhiri and form a protective circle around the visitors.

  • The village elder will then call out prayers in Maori that protect the visitors while they are in their care. 

  • The manuhiri are usually welcomed by the hosts with a show called the wero and this involves three challengers of the tribe that approach the visitor and lay down batons, which are to be picked up by the visitor.

  • Once the visitors pick up the final baton, they are then led to the next part of the procession.

  • This is usually where the visitors are welcomed with the world-famous warrior dance ritual made famous by the New Zealand All Blacks, the Haka. Traditionally, the Haka is a war-cry and it has multiple versions, with different tribes having different iterations.


  • After the haka is performed, speeches known as Whaikorero are recited by village elders, outlining the journey the Maori people’s ancestors have followed leading up to now.

  • These are usually followed by traditional Maori songs known as Waiata. The procession draws to a close after this and this is the stage where the visitor presents a gift to the Maori chieftain and at the end of the proceedings, the Powhiri is sealed with a Hongi to enshrine the values of love and respect that are shared between the visitors and the hosts.

  • The procession is concluded with a feast called the hakari and draws to a close a show of understanding and mutual respect between people of different backgrounds. 

  • Since according to Maori custom, the head or tapu, is considered sacred, there are many customs that relate to how people should behave with respect to behaving respectably.

  • These include customs from refraining from touching other people’s heads, or behaving disrespectfully with anything that comes into contact with your head like hats. 

    Sitting on tables, or walking indoors with shoes or footwear, or passing food over somebody’s head are also other customs that are followed by the Maori and the general Kiwi public. 

3. Languages 

There are 3 official languages in New Zealand, with English being the de facto and de jure language in New Zealand. The other two languages that are officially recognized as languages in New Zealand are New Zealand Sign Language and Maori.

English in New Zealand has been heavily influenced by Maori words and words and phrases like haka (dance), kia ora (welcome), waka (canoe), and taonga (treasure) are all examples of words that have been transliterated into New Zealand English. 

4. Maori Mythology 

Aoraki National Park
  • Purakau is the tradition of passing oral history and legends of the origin of the Maori people from an older generation to the younger one. For example, Aoraki, according to Maori legend, and his siblings were children of the Sky Father.

  • While out at sea, the canoe that the siblings were travelling in overturned and while stranded on top of the canoe, Aoraki and his three siblings froze on the canoe

  • The canoe came to be New Zealand’s South Island while Aoraki’s siblings became the Southern Alps while Aoraki himself became what is known today as Mount Cook/Aoraki. Maori myth accounts for all New Zealand’s geographical features.

  • The culture of New Zealand can be difficult to distinguish between from general western European cultures, and has been described generally as ‘open but reserved’ or as ‘friendly but respectful’.

Kiwi culture is generally regarded as laidback and is not known to take itself too seriously and is a blend of Maori practices and European traditions. This permeates all structures of life in New Zealand, ranging from food, social customs, language, government functioning, and lifestyles. 

This post was published by Ken Chiramel

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